Most people expect that when they enter a search term on Google, they will get back a Search Engines Results Page (SERP) that is an objective view of the web. The best web pages on the Internet for our particular search term.
This makes sense. It’s what we expect. It’s a critical starting point for any meaningful research.
But it’s not what actually happens.
In reality, Google is “personalizing” each search. Behind the scene, Google tracks our individual geographic location, based on our IP address, and customizes its search results accordingly. It may also use our individual browsing history, and our past preferences (especially if we are signed into a Google account or Google product like Gmail) to skew our results. In all Google uses over 50 personal “signals” to give us a distorted view of the world that Google believes is better for us individually. The bottom line: what you get to see is NOT what I get to see.
So you say: “Just turn personalization off. Give me back a less filtered view of the world!”
The problem is that, right now, Google doesn’t give you that option. You can struggle to minimize some aspects of personalized search, but can never fully turn personalization off. A “personalized” view of the universe is all you can get.
The negative effects of Search Personalization on Individuals
This is a business blog, so I won’t spend much time talking about basic democratic rights. Suffice it to say that, as an individual, I believe it is our fundamental right to gain access to the same information as everyone else. I definitely don’t want a “Big Brother” skewing my window into the world.
Check out this excellent TED Talks video featuring Eli Pariser: “Beware of Online Filter Bubbles”. Eli talks about this “invisible” shift on the Internet, and the dangerous consequences.
The negative effects of Search Personalization on eBusiness
So is this also a “Business” issue? Absolutely!
Want to check the rankings of your eBusiness on the Google search engine results page for a particular search term? Lots of luck! With personalization, there is no way to know that the SERP page result you see is actually representative of what the “average” searcher sees.
Try doing some “objective” research on your industry. Every time you do a market scan or competitive scan using Google Search your results are skewed and individualized. It’s like working in an echo chamber.
Finally, it makes it tougher (and less predictable) for companies to be found using organic search.
Are there any benefits to Search Personalization?
Say you’re searching for a “Best Italian Restaurant” for a Friday night dinner with friends. Personalization can be helpful to show a relevant local restaurant instead of “Osteria Francescana” in Modena, Italy. I believe that was Google’s original intent, to show you more personally relevant search results. But it should be an option, not imposed by default. And I’d rather add my own search modifiers (“Best Italian Restaurant Toronto Canada”) than have Google impose them on me.
While I choose to believe Google’s intentions are good, let’s be very clear. Google doesn’t just personalize search to give you a better search experience. Personalization also a big, big draw for advertising.
Opportunity for Google to do the “right thing”
I’m a big Google fan from way back. Over the years Page, Brin & Co. have given us amazing tools to leverage the Internet for business and personal advantage: Analytics, Webmaster, Google Accounts, Google Search, etc. In return we’ve given Google our data, our content, which Google uses to sell advertising, create profit, and build even cooler tools for all. A win-win relationship.
So here’s a great opportunity for Google to clarify who they are, and get in front of this issue. As an Internet leader, be the first to give people the option to completely turn personalization off. Give us a simple “Turn all personalization off” button.
It’s the right thing to do.
Until next time – Axel